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The Fruits of Exile

November 25, 2010 – 5:42 pmNo Comment

Some Jewish women from Yemen

This article is part of the Hineni journal, Partition, which will be distributed in synagogues around Australia on the 63rd anniversary of the UN’s adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine. We will be publishing a selection of articles from the journal.

By Andrew Harris

You’ve found space in the lunchtime crush, and you can barely hear the clink of your plate on the table above the din and distraction. Clatter and shouting from the kitchen. Seething, impossible traffic hooting and oozing into the horse-wide alley outside. Ruckus from the heaving market, beyond view. Guttural linguistic mishmash from the other eaters, who somehow manage to eat while gesticulating wildly, laughing, yelling. But above it all hangs the smell, a sort of sweet spicy tomato turmeric, a wheaty oily familial scent; timeless, displaced and yet at home here; neatly encapsulated by the mince-filled bulgur ball before you, swimming in a rich red sea. You pick up your spoon, and slowly push its point through the kibbe’s dense mantle, into its fluffy core. A puff of meaty steam escapes. You scoop up some soup with your kubbe fragment. You bring it to your mouth. Iraqi ecstacy.

When I think of Israel, I think of that experience. In one mouthful, it sums up everything Israel means to me. Yet, when the Iraqi Jews in the kitchen, or their forebears, first camped in flyblown ma’abara, tent-city transit camps in what is now Talpiot, or elsewhere, there was every pressure for them to replace the Tigris with the Yarkon and assimilate to the new, predominately Ashkenazi Israeli culture. I could just have easily been eating kneidlach.

For me, Israel is about intermingling microstates of food, language and culture, where the lingua franca might be hummus and Hebrew, but where imma is just as likely to make kibbe as kneidlach. It’s about everywhere else; sitting in that Iraqi restaurant in MachaneYehuda, in an island of Judaeo-Iraqi Arabic and Hebrew, and ingesting what it means for them to be Jewish. It’s about all those many fragments of peoples and cultures transported, dispossessed, exiled there, enticed and welcomed, who have come together, cohesively or otherwise, to puzzle out a polyglot nation (of over 50 living languages) at the centre of the world.

And Israel isn’t only about the Jewish puzzle pieces. It’s about riding a bike through the cobbled lanes of Kfar Kama, snatches of Adyghe from stone to stone, my stomach full of Circassian sheep’s cheese, marvellous flat bread and golden, freshly pressed olive oil. Israel is about finding out that this tiny national minority of people (3000 in Israel), Sunni Muslim, serve in the IDF. It’s about Israelis making weekly pilgramages to Druze falafel makers in the north, where the humble fried chickpea ball is at its hallowed best. It’s about reading Syed Kashua’s latest account of trying to rent a flat in Jerusalem. It’s about tiptoeing around the Ethiopian Church in Me’a Sharim, trying not to wake the wizened priest dozing in a dusty shaft of sunlight.

For me, Israel is not about a Jewish monoculture, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Orthodox, Reform, secular, or otherwise. It’s not about blending together the white robes of the Beta Israel with the black hats of the Hasidim to form a nationalistic grey, or the first generation of sabras forgetting Amharic, Arabic, Ladino or Judeo-Malayalam to speak only Hebrew. In order to form a unified whole, we all have to be ourselves first. The value of the Jewish people as a whole lies more in the sum of its parts. The pain of exile has been separation, excision, but the gift of exile has been diversity, multiculturalism. And one of the miracles of the ingathering is much of what has died out in the Diaspora thrives in Israel.

In Istanbul, you can still find a kosher butcher wedged into the crowded streets of Galata, and he’ll order you some strong, sweet tea to sip at a tiny table by the counter. You can go out on a Saturday night and gorge yourself at a stylish, exceptional kosher restaurant, and eat Turkish-Jewish food at its best. Although many Synagogues are empty week to week, many aren’t. Either way you look at it, shrinking as it might be, the Jewish community in Turkey has a palpable, accessible presence, with a robust Chief Rabbinate, and a highly functional social security infrastructure. Depending on who you speak to, they’re largely staying put. But if they were to move, en masse (and there are only around 20,000 left, it wouldn’t take much to get everyone to Israel), would they be able to take their culture with them? I’d like to think so.

In Yemen, 150 or so Jews live under constant state protection in Sana’a, following the 2008 murder, by a non-Jewish Yemeni, of a Jewish father of nine. The Yemeni state sentenced the murderer to death by firing squad, and the Jews are still there, but they’re only one plane load; in a puff of jet exhaust, the ancient Jewish community of Yemen would cease to exist. It’s just as well that the Yemenites maintain very distinct cultural practises within the Israeli milieu; schug is a ubiquitous Israeli condiment, and Yemenite traditions continue in moshavim and in private homes and institutions around the country.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis’ connection to their mother country is largely intangible. Millennia of Jewish presence has been effectively erased from Iraq, where now eight Jews remain. The last eligible Jewish couple married in Amman, with an Israeli Rabbi, was in 2005. They spent their honeymoon in Jordan, and returned to Baghdad for Rosh Hashanah. A few days later, the bridegroom was kidnapped. After years of silence from the kidnappers, he is assumed dead.

Despite early struggles to maintain their unique identity, the Iraqi Jews have transposed their culture to Israel. These days, the music of Kuwaiti-Jewish brothers Salah and Daoud Al-Kuwaiti is played all over the Arab world, but it’s in a small hall in Ramat Gan where you’ll hear some of Iraq’s finest musicians play their hit Hadri Chai Hadri, many now in their eighties; and, of course, it’s at Machane Yehuda where you’ll find the best kubbe.

I’ve chosen only to use a couple of prominent examples here, but the point I’m making is that a few short decades of nationhood has benefited beyond measure from millennia of Diaspora communities, and now is not the time to forget. While many Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora are on the brink of collapse, with one Jew (Asmara or Penang), a handful of Jews (Calcutta or Karachi), or ten handfuls (Bulawayo or Beirut), the tragedy is substantially mitigated by the knowledge that Israel can be as fertile a field for the sowing of Zionist seeds, as for the transplantation of the fruits of exile.

Andrew was a madrich for year 6 Hineni Melboune in 2002 and has been a devout Hinenite since its second-ever Melbourne meeting. Andrew is a writer and photographer with an abiding interest in Jews from random places.

The following parties helped make the journal possible:

Frank Levy, JNF, Unger Catering, JMC Corporate Real Estate Consultants, Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, Hagshama Melbourne, Antique Silver Company, shaundesign.com, Danielle Blumberg (editing), Mervyn Chait (formatting)

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